Rendering Truth Faster
October 27, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Melissa Uchiyama
Revelation while using an undersized lid: It was during an intensive, two-day Japanese cooking course taught by a chef and food writing legend, Elizabeth Andoh. Among the miso, dishes, and knives, one item was a drop-down lid called an otoshibuta (otōshee-bootah).
Instead of the Western lid made to fit exactly on the rim of a pot or pan, cooks here employ wooden, ill-fitting lids that lightly sit atop. The diameter is smaller; a 20 cm pot may take an 18 cm lid. Any detritus or foam to be skimmed from vegetables or fat from other ingredients can be skimmed while the otoshibuta sits on the ingredients. Underneath it, there is no air the way a western lid works, perched on the outer rim of the pot. With this drop lid, there is no space, so very little condensation or steam can dilute the flavor. The wood simply is there, pressed with surface tension.
After my workshop, I purchased my own otoshibuta and tried it a few times; what I most wanted, though, was to use the principle in my writing. I started reading shorter pieces to see authors model this principle. I knew the drop lid flavored with urgency instead of diluting words.
Not only is cooking time lessened and flavor deepened with the lid; the ill-fitting lids are made to separate and catch the foam, or aku, that emerges when boiling or simmering veggies or foods that contain bitterness and/or impurities. Drafts are needed; what comes out in the process of these events, characters, feelings expressed, are necessary. What goes in and what simmers away over heat is not what will stay. Some of it simply dissipates. Some pain leaves, but there is still the flavor, the molecules of disaster and relief. We skim off what is unnecessary or too bitter. The meat of the peace, the heart of it, should remain. If cooked with seasoning and skill, a meal will satisfy the writer, and later, the reader.
It is the skimming and the pressure, combined, that can gift my pot and pieces with a gentler, more efficient way to reach my goal. Pressing and skimming. Essence stays, bitter aku goes.
Brief essays encapsulate the art of no wasted movement. Less water and little oil is needed — flavors intensify under the immediacy of a lid that concentrates what is simply there.
Kate Hopper, author and mentor, says, “Giving yourself a goal of cutting a certain number of words can help distill a piece.” What about starting out with this? I decide to exchange my free-flow style for a position that moves deftly, with limited words.
I want fillers gone. If my story can cook down without dilution, I’m in. I challenge my writing student and myself to describe an event in 250 words or less. We do. She writes a lyrical, urgent offering of a girl digging for a pebble to throw into the sky for her mother just before the sun goes down. I dive into my creative non-fiction with a similar, more mindful urgency than I typically have, immediately honing in on a frantic moment of discovery: a dead swallow caught in my jasmine, now dead. Remembering is quicker now.
This goal works especially well at the start when the writer is empowered with a burst of energy and with ingredients that are still sharp and acidic with memory. I know my form and plan where to land.
“I think writers often write a lot in order to find their way to the true story,” Kate says. She reminds me of a long-form essay we worked on. It can take writing the whole gamut of our thoughts and events as we re-explore events to arrive at the mound of hope: somewhere, in all of this descriptive sludge of vocabulary and memory, our story is there. It’s just deeply hidden, bobbing between the carrots and potatoes, weaving its way through the pot as it boils. At the right time, the words and bits that are no longer needed will be scooped out in the aku. The editor in us will know what needs to remain and what can go.
“Asking the questions”, says Kate, “What is the true story here? What is the heart of this piece?” can help a writer compress. One you’ve figured out what that heart is, the extra stuff can go. You can look at it with new eyes and decide what serves the story and what doesn’t.”
I see what skims off and what remains. I continue to use it with my student, asking, “What is at the heart of the story? I generally have to slice off whole, flowery portions. This is big; I’ve been the queen of flowers writing who has yelled aloud at myself, “What are you trying to say?”
In the Japanese kitchen, nothing is wasted, including energy. With a wooden otoshibuta, the cook easily scoops or scrapes this detritus from the rim around the gap. It is the drop-down pressure, or limited word count, that helps the cook remove any detraction from a piece. Editing is easier.
My teacher’s otoshibuta drawer holds lids of various diameters and intentions, some in young pine and some two generations old. Maybe for us, too, there is the right way to draw out our most rigorous poem, or the right surface tension and urgency for our creative nonfiction.
We can enact this tension as we:
- Launch into 500-word essays instead of a usual 2,000. Challenge word length.
- Sail or cut right into the heart of the piece, the place of wound, the place of discovery.
- Whittle it down to the place of injury and fear it revealed.
- Use urgency to get to the place where healing or whatever you’re after, can occur.
I begin a new piece, aiming directly for the action. A writerly mis en place is beginning with the right lid.
Melissa Uchiyama writes essays about food, culture, and immigration. She leads creative writing camps for young writers in Japan, where she resides. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, LA Review of Books, The Japan Times, The Kyoto Journal, Taste, The Epoch Times, and anthologies, Knocked Up Abroad Again and Mothering Through the Darkness. Connect with Melissa on https://www.eatenjapan.com/about or on Twitter, @melibelletokyo.